What Will Be the Fate of Sustainability After November?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the Regeneration Roadmap, a global survey taken from over a thousand sustainability experts on the current state of sustainable development. One of the most striking findings was the fact that national governments were rated lowest as change agents for managing the transition to Sustainable Development (SD), yet, at the same time, respondents overwhelmingly felt that national governments should lead the SD agenda. Among countries, the U.S. was rated dead last among the major economic powers with respect to leadership on this issue.

So, given this viewpoint, and given America’s enormous carbon footprint, not to mention her influence in the world, it’s worth having a look at what’s at stake this coming November when it comes to the role of the U.S. government in supporting the transition to a more sustainable society. For brevity’s sake we will focus on energy.

According to Ken Bossong at Renewable Energy World, in the past three years, renewable energy has experienced explosive growth. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the 3-year period from 2009-2011.

Overall, renewable energy sources (i.e., biofuels, biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind) grew by 27.12 percent. That’s roughly double the growth rate of natural gas (13.6%), or crude oil (14.27%), the next fastest-growing elements of domestic production which, overall grew by 6.2% when actual declines in coal and nuclear were considered.

Said Bossnong, “During the first three years of the Obama Administration, geothermal grew by 15.63 percent, hydropower by 26.28 percent, solar by 28.09 percent, biofuels by 46.58 percent, and wind by 113.92 percent. Only biomass dipped – by 1.21 percent.”

These are impressive gains, but how do they compare with the rest of the world? Of the G20 nations, the U.S. ranked 7th last year in the percent of electricity generated by renewables and ranked 11th in percent change over the past ten years. While the U.S. produced 2.7% of its electricity from renewables, Spain, Portugal, Iceland, and New Zealand each used renewables to produce over 15% of their electric power. Of course we produce and consume far more power in absolute terms than any of these countries, but still, their relative commitment is impressive. On the investment side, we invested $44.51 billion in 2011, which was second only to China, who invested $49.74.

These statistics tell us two things. First, they tell us that the U.S. has demonstrated a genuine commitment to trying to catch up on renewables since President Obama took office. Second, they say we have not yet caught up and are in fact still pretty far back in the pack, which does not reflect well on us, especially considering our relative prosperity and the magnitude of our contribution to the global climate crisis.

That’s not likely to improve should Mitt Romney win the office. Romney is far more concerned with boosting the economy any way he can, while waving the flag of energy independence. He rails against any regulation aimed at protecting our environment as “ways that sap economic performance, curtail growth, and kill jobs.” Apparently he has forgotten the inconvenient truth of the Gulf oil disaster, which came about as the result of inadequate regulation and enforcement, and the many others like it. When it comes to his energy priorities, he seems to have also forgotten another inconvenient truth, the one Al Gore told us about: climate change. In a recent speech he said, “As the Obama administration wages war against oil and coal, it has been spending billions of dollars on alternative energy forms and touting its creation of ‘green’ jobs. But it seems to be operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation.”

Clearly, Romney’s approach is based on very short-term thinking. He is willing to go backwards into 19th century energy sources if it will provide even a small uptick in the economy. Of course, this is totally consistent with his background as a corporate raider, where the only thing that mattered was this quarter’s results. It has obviously worked well for him, having earned him a vast fortune, but I’m not at all sure it will work well for this country or for the planet. The consequences of this kind of all-out irresponsibility are bound to catch us sooner or later, even if Romney gets off the hook as his like-minded predecessor, George W. Bush, apparently did. The fact is, the time for us to take urgent action to avert catastrophic climate change is fast running out, even as Romney and his friends party on down in Tampa. This is certainly no time for us to suddenly reverse direction and start going backwards.

Mitt Romney has vowed that as president he would restrict the powers of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases, thus removing the last meaningful mechanism for the government to take action. He would also immediately approve the Keystone XL pipeline and work to prevent over-regulation of shale gas extraction (i.e. fracking). His energy strategy, which makes no mention of climate change, and mentions renewables only once (to say that they do not create jobs, citing the discredited, Exxon-funded economist Gabriel Calzada Alvarez), is built around fast-tracking approvals for nuclear and fossil fuel generation, which will undoubtedly be achieved by throwing environmental concerns out the window.

Not only does Mitt Romney apparently live in a parallel universe where there are no ethical or environmental consequences to business decisions, but he is also misinformed about the business of green jobs. Last week, we talked about the wind production tax credit and the 91,000 net jobs that were at stake if the PTC was not approved. A LinkedIn study showed that the green sector was the fastest growing sector of all last year, up 49%. Europe saw its one millionth green job awarded early this year, and Hip Investor says that we can hit full employment by 2015, if we focus on high impact jobs, such as those associated with renewables.

But, renewables aside, simple economics and history have both shown that the only way out of a recession like the one we are in is to increase government spending, and Romney, with his Ryan-inspired austerity budget, wants to go the wrong way on this, too.

The modern world is at a crucial juncture, facing what might be the gravest collective crisis since the beginning of recorded history. The President of the United States is perhaps the one person who can do more about this than any other. I truly believe that it would be hard to over-estimate the importance of this November’s election in the ultimate determination of whether human society will be able to pull itself back from the brink in time, or not. Of course, if the glaciers melt and the oceans rise, the Mitt Romneys of this world, will have a helicopter standing by to take them someplace safe, where bountiful provisions have been set in store, allowing them to continue living the good life, the only life they’ve ever known. But the rest of us are not likely be so lucky.

[Image credit: Jeanette E. Spaghetti: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com